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Ayatollah al-Nimr - Saudi Arabia's Imprisoned Revolutionary

25/08/2014 14:47 BST | Updated 21/10/2014 10:59 BST

"From the moment you are born, you are surrounded by fear, intimidation, persecution and abuse... I am 55 years old, more than half a century. From the day I was born and to this day, I've never felt safe nor secure in this country."

These are the words of Ayatollah Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, in 2011 in Saudi Arabia. A year later a Saudi Court sentenced him to death on account of his unwavering criticism of the Saudi Government's rejection of non-violent criticism, something the Shiite Muslim Nimr and other minority religious groups have been at the brunt of for many years. Nimr now faces death, with petitions for his freedom sprouting from the otherwise obliviously content Western world.

We may have allowed ourselves a passing moment of sympathy, before the hasty transition to the next story about something I don't know in a place I haven't been, but this case has an undeniable importance for anybody trying to make sense of the Middle East. Ayatollah Nimr deserves our attention.

On a base level, there is the human rights violation to take care of. Regardless of whichever nation is under the spotlight, it is difficult to forget the need for freedom of speech in a modern state. Moreover we have enough historical examples to refer to when we hear of states oppressing minority communities, leading us in the past to the darkest depths of the flaws of humanity.

Unfortunately, we in Britain face another ethical dilemma, which comes in the form of our foreign policy. No surprises there. In his first meeting with King Abdullah, David Cameron stressed the need to 'broaden and deepen' UK-Saudi relations, just as the Saudis were broadening and deepening the crackdown of minority criticism by arresting and attacking Nimr.

Even the most preserved Blairite should be shifting uncomfortably in their seat. The fact that British international interests see minority oppression as mere collateral damage in diplomatic relations is reminiscent of old-fashioned colonialism. Amending our foreign policy has started to rhyme with liberation from hypocrisy (coincidentally it does) as we are once more held to account by our administration's international dinner-party guests/oil partners/war buddies.

The next task is to look at Nimr not as any oppressed minority speaker, but an oppressed religious minority preacher. Shiite Muslims have a history of persecution to learn from, especially from fellow Muslims. Put in context, approximately 10-15% of the Saudi population are Shia, though it wouldn't tell if you booked a ticket to Riyadh. In most regions they are not allowed to hold openly religious events. Shia Mosques, pilgrimage, public roles, job opportunities and education are restricted by the government. Who knows which insecurities fuel such obsessive silencing.

The opposition to this religious group is best seen in its ideological parent - Wahabbism - the 'religious'-political origin of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Wahabbi scholars have taken what can only be described as a hatred for anything even hinting at being Shiite. In a 1988 fatwa Sheikh Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz, arguably the most influential cleric in Saudi Arabian history named Shiites as 'the most vicious enemy of Muslims' and denounced their Islamic faith.

This doctrine of Wahabbism has left no sympathy for any group not inclined to the strict literal Salafist school of thought, let alone those who challenge it. Al Qaeda and the un-'Islamic State' were conceived from this ideology, and share the same intolerance for Shiite Islam.

Ayatollah Nimr represents the Shiite stand against Wahabbism, and the Islamic bow he uses to launch tirade after tirade against the regime only makes this conflict more cogent. His words, and fate empower the path for Shiite communities in the region and beyond. However this may not be the only role he assumes.

There is the geo-political story to consider, as the fate of Nimr is linked to the web of events in the Middle East. This can be seen best in who supports Nimr, and why. Firstly there's support for his freedom from Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah, who stated his detention 'harm(s) our [Islamic] nation which badly needs cooperation and encounters serious threats'. The easy answer is that the Shiite share mutual feeling of being oppressed, be it at the hands of Israel or Saudi Arabia.

And yet, if you take away the Shiite factor, both groups do face the same enemy - a Western backed force seeking to strip them of their autonomy. And both movements seek to uphold liberal values to prove their legitimacy; an interesting reflection of Shiite Islam, but also making Nimr a bastion for free-speech and freedom we can more familiarly relate to.

The involvement of the 'Party of God' paints a clearer picture - Ayatollah Nimr cannot be seen as separate from the Middle Eastern resistance to Western influence, with American-backed Saudi and British-created Israel sharing what should be an uncomfortable platform having the same shooting targets. And ammo suppliers.

Look at another example of this - Bahrain, the epicenter of Wahabbi oppression of Shiite Muslims. Ayatollah Nimr has repeatedly vocalized solidarity with the Bahraini uprising which stemmed from the 'Day of Rage' on the 14th of February 2011. Support for Nimr post-arrest was returned by the suitably named 'February 14 Movement of Bahrain' calling for his emancipation.

It is too sensationalist to look at this as just one Shiite offering one another a helping hand. Rather these bonds, between Hezbollah, between the Saudi and Bahraini revolutionaries, between Iran and the Ayatollah Nimr uniquely escape sectarianism and embrace humanitarianism. For as long as the terms 'freedom of speech' and 'self determination' are used, we ought not to see our own freedom as separate from Nimr's.

We face an international conflict which has placed the man who 'dared to peacefully criticize Saudi Arabia's rulers' in the line of fire. We need to decide if we're happy empowering those about to pull the trigger.